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Wild Sheep of the Canyons
by Damian Fagan

Several years ago I had an interesting job. For two weeks I would hike to some isolated pinyon or juniper at the base of Dead Horse Point. I would pack my spotting scope, binoculars and notebook to these spots, settle in and watch. I had a perfect view of Tom Cruise, or his stunt double Ron Kauk, rapelling down the sheer Wingate sandstone face to their predetermined mark. From there they would ascend, hand-jamming the wider cracks, face climbing where the cracks dissolved. Circling overhead was the Mother Ship, the helicopter with a nose-mounted camera and an operator inside using a video screen and joy stick to operate the camera. I’d make entries into my notebook on how the local band of desert bighorn sheep responded to the presence of the helicopter. It was a tough job and yes, someone did have to do it. Fortunately, that someone was me, though I almost got fired.

Not because of some conflict of interest - the production company was paying my salary but I did have the authority to restrict their filming. No, the problem stemmed from an offhand comment that I made to one of the Assistant Directors. I stated that the women of Moab considered Tom to be “just a 9" because his climbing moves were not that smooth. From then on, I was banished to my outpost.

Which was fine. Not only did I have a great vantage point to watch the movie filming from below, but I also was able to locate several different groups of bighorn sheep. I would watch their reactions, or lack thereof, to the helicopter, as well as observe foraging behavior and group dynamics. As part of the contract I returned to the area a few days after filming to relocate sheep and search for hats blown over the edge.

I did relocate the two bands of ewes and lambs that I had been observing, but could not find an older ram that I watched for several days. His disappearance in that rugged land didn’t indicate that the filming activity had impacted his behavior. He could have been up a different side canyon or higher up on the talus slopes out of view. Of course, he could have been canyons away; there were plenty of fresh sheep tracks and scat all over the area.

Biologists speculate that at one time desert bighorns were abundant in southern Utah. Carved or painted images adorn many a canyon canvas, and their remains have been unearthed in many archaeological sites. Beyond just a source of meat, their bones and horns were used as tools by the Native Americans. Before settlers arrived in the West, population estimates ranged between 500,000 and one million wild sheep roaming North America.

Diseases spread by domestic livestock, over hunting, and habitat encroachment impacted those populations. When Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, the park’s herd was an estimated 75-100 desert bighorn. The health of the herds within the different districts varied, and there was some interaction with herds located outside of the park’s boundaries. Through allocation of the domestic livestock grazing privileges to wildlife, grazing buffers established between livestock and bighorn herds, a park-wide ban on hunting, and dramatic reductions in habitat alteration, the area’s herd increased five to sixfold. From this larger population base, small groups of sheep have been trapped and relocated to other areas, like Arches or Capitol Reef National Parks. Monitoring of these “seed herds” will determine if the fruits of these relocation labors pay off.

Some population gains have been offset by losses due to disease, increased recreational activity and habitat alteration that may be associated with prolonged drought. But if you are out to see bighorn sheep, November is an excellent month to observe congregations of animals going through the annual mating season or rut. And you don’t have to hide out beneath some scraggy juniper to watch these preoccupied bighorns put on a show.

The annual Desert Bighorn Sheep Festival will take place November 14th and 15th in Moab. A Friday night lecture at the Moab Information Center starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be given by biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. On Saturday there will be a field trip for those interested in viewing this majestic species.

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